Monarch Profile: King Victor Amadeus III of Piedmont-Sardinia
Prince Victor Amadeus Maria, Duke of Savoy, was born in Turin on June 26, 1726 the son and heir of King Carlo Emmanuel III by his second wife Princess Polyxena of Hesse-Rotenburg. A son from the King’s previous marriage had died the year before so the birth of Victor Amadeus, a new heir to the throne, was widely celebrated in the Savoy lands of Piedmont-Sardinia.
His childhood and upbringing were very typical for
the house of Savoy and the same descriptions would be used for Italian
royal sons right to the last king to ever reign. His private tutor was
quite strict and his education stressed military subjects, Catholicism
and history, particularly the history of the House of Savoy. The
emphasis on the army was doubtless even more so given that, even in the
ranks of a family with an extremely long martial history, King Carlo
Emmanuel III was most known as a “warrior-king”, earning laurels in the
wars over the Polish and Austrian successions. Prince Victor Amadeus had
an upbringing that greatly stressed the importance of the army and,
like other Savoy royal heirs, he was kept away from politics until the
day he actually came to the throne.
In 1773, with the passing of his father, the Duke of Savoy became King Victor Amadeus III of Piedmont-Sardinia on February 20. From day one the administration of his country and the military were his top priorities but that does not mean that he neglected other areas. Because of his conservative and religious nature he has often been accused of being reactionary to the point of being averse to change of any kind, but this is not so. In fact, he was very keen on improving a number of things that needed it. Beneficial change was never a problem for him but change for the sake of change alone, naturally would not be tolerated. For all of the emphasis he placed on the army, he was also certainly not a warmonger and aimed at ensuring the security of his country by peaceful, diplomatic means first and foremost. His marriage to a member of the Spanish Royal Family was part of this, to secure a marriage alliance with Spain after the two powers had been enemies in the War of Austrian Succession (the Savoy having backed the Hapsburg side).
Overall, he carried on with the changes first set in motion by his grandfather which were aimed at making the aristocracy less corrupt and more socially-minded (a common problem of the time) and encouraging greater social mobility for the common people so that they could lift themselves out of poverty by their own talents. In terms of the army though, he did spend a great deal, carrying on the effort to renovate the Piedmontese military along the lines of that of the Kingdom of Prussia which was the example that all small, resource-poor states naturally wished to follow. Given the events of his reign, some have dismissed this as a failure but that requires taking a very narrow view. In fact, the military “culture” of the country was changed and even as late as World War II, a German general serving in Italy remarked on how similar Piedmont was to Prussia in the emphasis placed on the army and in the many years in between not a few foreign observers would refer to Piedmont as ‘the Prussia of Italy’. The King is also remembered as the founder of the Gold Medal of Military Valor, the highest Italian combat decoration which is still awarded to this day. He also followed this example himself at home by adopted a more Spartan lifestyle so that the British historian Gibbon, on traveling through the area, wrote about how the Savoy royals lived “with decent and splendid economy”.
The French republicans were quick to attack Piedmont, vowing to make northern Italy a satellite republic, but the Savoyard troops, along with a contingent of Austrians, fought fiercely and succeeded in repelling the initial invasion. The French met a similar fate on other fronts and when they tried to enlist the United States to come in on their side, the American government flatly refused and considered the alliance made with the late King Louis XVI to have died with him. Royalist counter-revolutionaries were also rising up and achieving successes. However, the French responded by ordering the conscription of every adult male in the country and soon they had turned the war situation around, swamping their enemies with what was often simply a huge, armed and radicalized mob.
In the wake of this fiasco, King Victor Amadeus III was a broken man and his health and spirits only worsened from that point on. Within a year he had an apoplexy and finally died on October 16, 1796 at Moncalieri. A reign that had began with such promise and which had seen many beneficial reforms, had been reduced to ruin in the final years by the horror and bloodshed that were the fruits of the French Revolution. However, the House of Savoy was down but not out and the next three kings to succeed him would all be sons of Victor Amadeus III and they would ultimately see the French defeated, the Savoy flag raised again over Turin and the monarchy restored completely along with some additional lands. The French revolutionaries had won the first round but the sons of Victor Amadeus III would be the ones returning home in triumph while Allied armies marched down the boulevards of Paris.